Women in STEM groups warn of approaching funding cliff

Brandon How

Women in STEM groups are warning of an approach cliff for federally funded programs designed to encourage women into science and technology, with the government unlikely to commit to new funding in the upcoming budget due to an ongoing review.

The government put its support for Women in STEM programs under review in September to consider the “delivery, effectiveness and impact of existing programs,” according to the terms of reference.

Geek Girls chief executive and co-founder Sarah Moran. Image: UN Women Australia

The final recommendations of the Women in STEM review are expected to be made to Industry and Science minister Ed Husic by October 2023.

Girl Geek Academy co-founder Sarah Moran argues that this is too long to wait for new funding and that she may have to shut down operations, following financial stress faced during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The group runs hackathons, training courses, and other initiatives fostering STEM interest among highschool girls.

“With Women in STEM programs under review for most of this year, we currently don’t anticipate any new funding commitments until 2024. The government’s third year in office is far too late to wait, we need action now,” Ms Moran said.

“While we are supportive of the review of ‘Women in STEM’ programs and hope it eventuates in more funding made available in the long term, we cannot ignore the short-term fact that women and girls are falling behind.”

According to the government’s STEM equity monitor, women in STEM industries earnt 18 per cent less than men on average in 2021. In 2016, the different was 22 per cent.

Ms Moran also said that while the October federal Budget committed $5.8 million to the Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship program, it also cut $3.9 million from the Supporting Women’s Mid-Career Transition into the Tech Workforce initiative included in the Coalition government’s March Budget.

“There has been a drought of these type of programs as most organisations, typically run by women, have not survived the impacts of the pandemic. Girl Geek Academy lost 99.9 per cent of our cash flow overnight when COVID hit and the only reason we still exist is because I went and got a day job to keep us alive,” Ms Moran said.

She also noted that funding from tech companies has dried up and claimed that many struggling organisations are not speaking up out of fear of looking like “damaged goods”.

Although Girl Geek Academy has historically suplemented government funding from the private sector, this too has dried up. As the “tech layoffs are now rolling across the industry and as budgets are slashed gender equality programs are very much the first to go,” Ms Moran said.

The group received $250,000 in funding through the first round of the Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship grants in 2016 but hasn’t received any federal funding since.

Victroian state government funding for the League of Extraordinary Women, a network for female entrepreneurs facilitating events, conferences, and other support initiatives, has also dried up since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

League of Extraordinary Women chief executive and cofounder Sheryl Thai said it used to receive around $20,000, depending on the number of events run from former Victorian Department of Jobs, Precincts, and Regions and Small Business Victoria.

While it was able to run some online events during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, interest waned. The league’s Women in tech conference Techformation was last run in 2020 with support, but it’s future is uncertain. Sheryl Thai said that the cost of venue hire has “doubled or even tripled”.

“The last [event] we ran was in November and we didn’t really make a big profit at all, but there was a lot of work that went into it,” she said.

“We run a really lean environment, I have my other businesses, so this is more like something that we do because we are passionate about it. If it was to operate as a proper company, then it doesn’t make sense to continue to run events and programs if it is running at a loss.”

Without government support, Ms Thai said paying staff, hosting events or attracting high profile speakers would be difficult.

“Unless we priced the tickets at $100 plus, it’s really hard for us to cover the costs. And at that price point, we struggle to actually sell tickets as well,” she said.

When asked to address these concerns, Industry and Science minister Ed Husic’s office said “the government recognises the need to continue supporting initiatives that address gender inequity in STEM while the review is underway”.

“The government is continuing to deliver existing initiatives that support women in STEM. On 17 January 2023, the government announced $15.9 million in grants for 17 women in STEM and entrepreneurship projects through the Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship Grants program.

“The government is also continuing to work with the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) on Elevate, the government’s $41.2 million scholarship program, as well as with the Women in STEM Ambassador to drive cultural change.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

1 Comment
  1. Dr Robert O'Connor 1 year ago

    I was part of the Department of Industry team that pitched, developed and managed the Women in STEM programs. I’m long out of the APS but have maintained an interest in the programs. Evaluation was designed in, as part of the plan was to try different things, scale up what worked, move on from what didn’t. The current evaluation is long overdue.

    For good or ill the programs were seized on by the previous government as proof that they ‘got’ the economic challenges for women. For them, that meant scattering money around, going for as many announceables as possible, but not stopping to ask if the projects were working. As a result they did things like scale up some initiatives before the pilot had finished, and ignored effective small-scale things in favour of high-profile projects of questionable value.

    If we take the current government at face value they seem to be more serious about evaluation and more accountability for the use of public funds. If so, the best thing Women in STEM groups (and others) can do is make sure they can show that their projects are having an impact. And make friends with their local MP.

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